Ron Field uncovers the role of Scots Americans in the war to free the slaves.
In the wake of the failed Union attack on the Tower Battery at Secessionville on James Island, near Charleston, South Carolina, on 16 June 1862, the Charleston Mercury reported, ‘It was left to the brave 79th Highlanders, to test the virtue of unadulterated cold steel on our Southern nerves. Thank God, Lincoln had only one 79th regiment.’ In fact, the Union Army possessed several predominantly Scottish regiments between 1861 and 1865, mostly based on pre-war militia units.
Approximately 600,000 Scots migrated to the United States between 1851 and 1861, bringing with them a rich military tradition. Militia companies of Scottish origin wearing full Highland uniforms were formed in both Northern and Southern states, including Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
Referred to as the ‘sons of auld Scotia’, a company called the Scotch Light Infantry was organized at Albany, the capital city of New York State, in August 1851, and was one of the first American units to wear a uniform based on that of the British 42nd Highland Regiment, or Black Watch.
According to the ‘By-Laws’ of the Scotch Light Infantry, printed on 25 July 1854, they wore a ‘Bonnet of black ostrich feathers, red hackle [or feather plume] and plaid band. Red coat, double breasted, with gold lace on the collar, cuffs, and skirts. Kilt of the Forty-second plaid. Spooran [sic] made of white hair, six black tassels, silver or German silver top [or cantle], with the Goddess of Liberty in the centre and a star at each end. Hose of red and white plaid. Shoes and silver buckles.’
Highlanders for the Union
In Chicago, Illinois, the Highland Guard commanded by Captain John McArthur wore ‘the regular old style, with red frock coats, tartans, huge overhanging caps, bare continuations, and other paraphernalia’ when first organised in 1856. With the outbreak of Civil War in April 1861, this company formed the nucleus of the 12th Illinois Infantry, or ‘First Scotch Regiment’, with McArthur as colonel.
Although the 12th Illinois received state-issue uniforms of gray at the beginning of its war service and later wore blue, its headgear until at least 1862 consisted of a Scottish tam-o’-shanter with tartan, or plaid, band.
The 12th Illinois sustained heavy losses at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Corinth in 1862. In the defence of Allatoona, Georgia, on 5 October 1864, it suffered 57 casualties among its remaining 161 men. Survivors and replacements marched to the sea with General William Tecumseh Sherman, and then into the Carolinas to finish the war.
First organised in New York City during November 1858, a Highland regiment was subsequently designated the 79th New York State Militia, named after the 79th Regiment, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, of the British Army. Adopting the Cameron of Erracht tartan, which was specially shipped from Scotland, this regiment first paraded in undress uniform composed of ‘plaid pants, polka jackets and small caps’ on 17 September 17 1860.
The uniform was further described by the regimental historian William Todd as consisting of ‘handsome State [blue] jackets with red facings, blue fatigue caps and Cameron tartan pants’. In February 1860, a few members of the 79th paraded in kilts for a Grand Military Fete held in New York City, and B Company of the regiment dressed in ‘kilts, polka jackets, plaid stockings and bright buckled shoes’ escorted Elmer Ellsworth and the Chicago Zouave Cadets on their departure from the city six months later.
With the onset of Civil War, the 79th NYSM was increased in size to 895 officers and men and mustered into Federal service on 29 May 1861, with many new recruits of Irish as well as Scottish origin. At this stage, the regiment found great difficulty in provided its whole compliment with kilted full dress. According to William Todd, ‘All of the officers and many of the men wore the kilts while the rest [or new recruits]… were dressed in handsome State jackets with red facings, blue fatigue caps and Cameron tartan pants…’
With the arrival of the regiment at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, en route for Washington DC, the Inquirer newspaper reported, ‘The different companies were somewhat diversified as to style of uniform, but the national plaid marked all. Some were accoutred [sic] in the full Highland costume, kilt and bare knees; others were in plaid pants.’ When the regiment took part in the review of New York troops at the Federal capital in July 1861, only three or four of the officers wore ‘the full Highland rig’.
In a last effort to provide the whole of the 79th New York with complete Highland dress, Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Elliott wrote to the New York Tribune in July 1861, ‘I purpose going to New-York on furlough to attend to the unfinished business of the regiment, which may occupy me some time, as I am anxious to obtain pipers, for whom I may have to go to Canada, and also to procure kilts for the entire regiment, without which the Highlander is shorn of half his martial spirit and all his martial splendors.’
When McDowell’s army began its march to Manassas Junction prior to the Battle of First Bull Run four days later, Elliott clearly had had no time to fulfill his mission. Of that occasion William Todd wrote, ‘At two o’clock in the afternoon in ‘light marching order’ the march began; our knapsacks containing our uniform jackets and tartan pants… having been packed and left at camp in charge of the ‘Invalid Corps’. If any of our men wore anything other than the regulation dark blue blouses and light blue pants during the campaign… they were few.’
The 79th Highlanders fought bravely at Bull Run and later at Secessionville, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Vicksburg, the Wilderness, and Petersburg. They became one of the most respected units from New York City during the Civil War, and earned themselves a fearsome reputation on the battlefield, where they lost 190 men killed in action or died of disease, and 747 discharged because of wounds or sickness, from a total roster of 1,374.
At the end of the conflict in 1865, the 79th returned to New York City, where they reverted to militia status and carried on their proud Highland military tradition.